Choose! Choose now!

Fractal tree
Fractal tree

Life throws many choices in our way. One view of the world is that it is like a many branched pathway, with our every day choices causing us to thread a particular path though this maze of branches, to reach the ever growing tip of the tree of events that is our past.

The future is yet to come into being but we can see dimly into it, and we use this limited view to inform our choices. The view into the future is like a mist. Things appear dimly for a while only to fade and be hidden from view. Sometime in the future is the instant of our demise. We know it’s coming but we do not usually know how and when.

Misty Morning
Misty Morning

We try to compensate for our inadequate view of the future by trying to cater for all possibilities, and one way we do this is by making a will, to prescribe how we would like our things, our assets, to be distributed when we are dead.

Some people try to predict the future. Some people gamble, on horses or whatever, trying to guess the winner of a race. There are two sorts of such people, those who estimate the odds and then build in as much of a safety margin as they can. These are usually the ones who run the books, while the other sort take a more optimistic view and gamble that the bookmakers are wrong. The first group is generally happy to make small profits while the second group want high returns. Generally the first group does a lot better than the second group over a reasonably long time frame.

Bookmakers at Higham
Bookmakers at Higham

The interesting thing about choice is that it is a discrete thing. We choose from one or more possibilities and the number of those possibilities is an integer. Often it is a choice between option one or option two. Pretty obviously it isn’t option one point five.

If we have two possibilities, call them A and B, then the probability of A occurring might be thirty percent. This means that the probability of B happening is seventy percent. The two must always add up to one hundred per cent.

Choice of paths
Choice of paths

So there is a mapping here between discrete events and continuous probabilities. Between integers and real numbers. One way of looking at this is that “event A” is a sort of label to the part of the probability curve that represents the event. Or it could be considered that the probability of the event is an attribute of the event.

It could be that when a choice is made and the probability of making that is more probably than making the other choice then that it is similar to making a choice of road. One road is wide and one is narrow. The width of the road could be related to the probability of making that choice.

Choice of routes to Pinnacle Hill
Choice of routes to Pinnacle Hill

The width of the road or the probability of the choice may well be subjective of course. I might choose to vote for one political party because I have always voted for that party. The probability of me voting for that party is high. The probability of my voting for another party would be quite low. However for someone who is the supporter of another party, the road widths are the other way around.

Is it true that when I vote for the party that I usually vote for that I exercise a choice? Only in a weak way. Merely doing things the way that one has always done is just taking the easy way and involve little choice. The reason for taking the easy choice may be because one has always done it that way and there is no reason to change. Habit, in other words.

A or B?
A or B?

Most choices we make are similar. We have a set of in-built innate or learned reactions to most situations, so that we don’t have to trouble to make a choice. If you make a choice, if you drill down far enough you will find that there are always reasons for a choice that you make. Your father always voted for the party, so you do out of loyalty and shared beliefs.

Every choice, when you examine it, seems to just melt away into a mass of knee jerk reactions and beliefs. When you examine choices you find that there was in fact no other way that we were likely to choose and free choice doesn’t really exist.

Spoilt for Choice
Spoilt for Choice

We have all been to a fast food restaurant only to find that the person before us is unable to make up their mind. This is probably because they do not have strong preferences so that they don’t have any reason to choose one dish over the other, or they dislike all the dishes equally.

If we put people in a situation where they have no reason to prefer one course of action over another and we force them to make a choice, they will often think up ludicrous reasons for making the choice that they finally make.

Reason Why lobby card
Reason Why lobby card

For instance on game shows where they have to make a selection from a multiple choice question in a limited amount of time, quite often they will say something like “I haven’t pressed B in a while”, or “I guessed A last time and it worked out for me so I did it again”, even something like “It’s my boyfriends favourite colour.” It’s hard to know if they really used that reasoning or whether they are justifying their choice after the event.

Another way to cause people to make a random choice is to try and remove all distractions. I can envisage an experiment where people are placed in a room with a screen and two buttons. They are then told by a message on the screen to press the correct button within ten seconds and a count down starts. Since they have no knowledge of which is the correct button they will be forced to choose any button to press or to let the timeout expire. Then they will asked why they chose that particular button. The results of such a test would be interesting.

Random Walk Trace
Random Walk Trace

Determinism : Going out of your door.

Bilbo’s poem “The Road Goes Ever On” from “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” encapsulates the opposed and surely incompatible concepts of “free will” and “determinism”. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Earlier, when leaving the Shire, Frodo tells the other hobbits Bilbo’s thoughts on ‘The Road’: “He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step onto the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'”.

Firstly Bilbo refers to the many choices that a journey forces on the traveller with the metaphor of a river, its branching and its tributaries, but he also acknowledges that one might be “swept off”, of the travellers path being beyond his control.

Journeys of Frodo
Journeys of Frodo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I feel that the second case (of one’s path being beyond one’s control) is a nod to the concept of determinism. I never set out to post mainly about food, though that is what has happened. I intended, as I stated in my very first post that there would be a triple focus to this blog. So this is in part an attempt to address the lack of balance.

So I’ve chosen to tackle a philosophical topic this time. Or did I? Did I actually make a choice, or was my switch to a philosophical topic pre-destined, and simply predetermined by previous events? Could I have chosen not to have written on this topic?

English: Choice of bridleways The unnamed road...

There are three main views expressed on the topic of freewill versus predestination. The first is that we do have freewill and many people consider this “obvious” and not really worth debating. The second view is that each and every action is pre-destined and that choice is an illusion. A third view tries to sidestep the debate by claiming that the two views are not mutually exclusive. Compatibilists (who espouse this third view) argue that, provided we were in a position to make a choice between two courses of action and we later turn out to have taken one of them  (or as it is more usually put, if we could have chosen to do take the other course) then we have made a choice, even if the outcome of making the choice was predestined and therefore both of the other two views are valid.

Conditional support
Conditional support (Photo credit: Pulpolux !!!)

I’ve always thought that the compatibilist viewpoint was a cop out, or a case of trying to have your cake and eat it. I’ve thought that it devalues choice, which to me means the ability to opt for one course freely and without the outcome being decided or predestined. However I’ve recently thought of an analogy that could support the compatibilist viewpoint.

The analogy is a computer program. There are “decision points” in a program. Should this bit of code be executed next or that bit of code? Should the program perform the loop one more time, or just carry on with the next bit of code? In each case the decision is made depending on the state of the program at the time, perhaps determined by the state of a variable. It could be said that there is a choice  involved in each of these decisions, but when the program is executing and it comes to a decision point its state is determined and the course of the execution is completely determined.

So, humans are not computers, are they? But the underlying point of the analogy is that the programmer writes the software program to make a decision depending on the situation when the program is run. When the program is run, the decision is made depending on the situation at the time. Similarly with humans, perhaps. At one level there is the choice “programmed into” the situation by the past state of the universe. At another level the decision is predetermined by the current state of the universe. Asking the question “Is there free will, or is everything predetermined?” is comparing apples with oranges.

Possibly. I’m not completely convinced. The compatibilists still have an ethical issue – is it ethical to punish someone for a crime even though they (presumably) chose to commit it, because their choice was predetermined.

English: The courthouse of Tours. Français : L...
English: The courthouse of Tours. Français : Le palais de justice de Tours. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)